"Calm down," I said, forcing a smile. "Maybe I misunderstood." I changed tactics and I addressed Elise, translating in my mind as I spoke. "If I give Santiago two hundred for the horse, how much do you want for guiding me?"
"NO!" Santiago shouted and rattled off a score of words in rapid Spanish. "You pay to me only! You can give me three hundred and fifty, then you go and no come back here."
I was wearing him down, but it gave me no pleasure whatsoever. I didn’t want to be doing this, but it was his doing, he was the one causing the problem. I took out two red, 100-peso notes, folded in half and handed them to him. When he looked at the bills and realized the amount, he became angrier still, and pushed the notes into my chest saying "NO! Give me three-fifty!" the bills falling to the ground like autumn leaves. Holy shit! This guy is an asshole. Or am I? Could I possibly be mistaken? He’s so angry. Why? Because he really thinks I’m trying to cheat him? Because I refuse to fall for his scam? Or maybe because he sees me as a rich man, able to travel and therefore should pay more.
I almost told him about the 50 I had passed to Elise, but held back. Whatever the reason for his fury, he just pushed me and now it had become my moment to respond. I looked down at the bills lying on the dirt and I suddenly felt bad for him, and for me, and for the whole damn world. This spinning sphere was a paradise once. Eden did exist – until men and their greed, pride, selfishness and deceit ruined it all. Each of us, in our own time and place and way have fallen, and by our actions have cursed Eden into oblivion, through the ages, generation after generation right on down to Santiago and me.
Beep, beep! As I reached down to pick up the two fallen bills I felt mixed emotions. I was upset by Santiago’s extortion attempt, yet I felt compassion for Elise. The one was cold and greedy, the other was kind and gentle, a micro-cross-section of the people I had already encountered on this trip, on every trip, and at home as well. I took out the last bill I had on me. It was soft and fragile and barely retained any red from the day it was printed, thousands of transactions ago. I added it to the two that had fallen and pressed the trio into my namesake’s hand, not sure if he would accept my final offering. "For Elise," I said. I turned away, hoping he would accept, for it was all I had to give. I looked at Elise. This time we made eye contact.
"Adios Elise," I said. "Take good care of Eden for me." I got on the back of the moto and turned to see Santiago and Elise begin a discussion. As we sped away, I saw Santiago extend his hand, I assumed to shake with Elise, but then I saw Elise, a sad look on his face, take the 50-peso bill from his pocket and reluctantly give it to Santiago. It broke my heart. Cain and Abel, I thought. This was just like the Garden of Eden.
During the ride back on the bike I had time to think about all that had happened. I realized this side trip had been much more than merely a visit to a pretty waterfall. It had been a look into the heart of a stranger, and into my own as well. It first seemed the day had been ruined by the confrontation, but as I rode along, the lesson became clear. We are all at fault in the way we treat each other. By the things we do as well as the things we should and don’t. Old Santiago needs to change. So do I, and most likely so do you.
So, whenever I recall the day I visited the beautiful waterfall, I will remember not only the beauty, but also the not-so-pretty things I encountered that day. What I experienced there will always be a two-sided memory for me, as I knew it would be impossible to recall the beautiful without also remembering the ugliness. Yet, whenever I remember that day, surprisingly, what stands out is not the bad, but the beautiful: the lovely cascade pouring down upon me, steady old Paloma, and mostly the warmth and humility of a man called Elise.
The waterfall El Limon is located on the north coast of The Dominican Republic, on the Samana peninsula about 20 minutes east of the town of Las Terrenas.
Tours to the falls are available in town for less than I paid, but for those who choose not to travel in a group, moto-taxis and motorcycle rentals are available at quite reasonable prices. Las Terrenas offers a wide variety of accommodations and restaurants, and there are a few very nice beaches in the area. Hotel Diny was a US$10-per-night refuge for me, right on the beach, bathroom down the hall, and a great $3 breakfast. Lonely Planet Dominican Republic & Haiti is informative and recommended, although it needs to be updated from its current 1999 edition.
If you hike to the falls, be aware the trip is strenuous. If you rent a horse and guide, beware. I heard of others having problems similar to mine. If you choose to hike alone, again beware – there may be robbers…
Highly recommended travel reading is Incidents of Travel in Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, both written by John Lloyd Stephens with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood.